HL Deb 14 October 2002 vol 639 cc587-90

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the number of those entered for foreign language GCSE examinations in 2002.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, final figures for language GCSE examination entries in England for 2002 are not yet available. Previous years' figures demonstrate that entries for modern foreign language GCSE examinations were increasing. The Government are not complacent and recognise the need to motivate more people to participate in language learning programmes. Our national languages strategy, due to be published in the autumn, will outline our plans to transform the language capability of people in this country.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. However, I note that the total number of GCSE entries—according to the figure released officially today by the Department for Education and Skills—continues to rise healthily and that, as the Minister said, we have had several years of steady if, sadly, modest increase in entries for modern foreign languages. Given that, is it not disturbing that we are told—although this may prove to be exaggerated—that this year there has been a fall of almost 9,000 in each of the two main foreign languages taught in this country: a drop of about 2.5 per cent in French and about 6.5 per cent in German? To what does the Minister attribute such a state of affairs—if that turns out to be the case—and how does she explain the difference between the situation in this country and in that of the European Union's only other anglophone country, the Republic of Ireland?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, as the noble Lord said, those are provisional figures. One way in which I would explain the situation is that the number of pupils sitting French and German GCSEs appears to have dropped slightly, but the number of students taking Spanish and other modern foreign languages has increased. We shall have to investigate this, but young people may be choosing to study a different set of modern foreign languages, which would not be entirely surprising in our modern age. I am happy to discuss the matter with the noble Lord and your Lordships' House when we receive the final figures.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the reason for the Minister's Answer that English is increasingly becoming the lingua franca of the world? If so, will the Government do everything that they can to improve the teaching of English in our schools?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the Government have long been committed to the teaching of English. I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in supporting the need to ensure that our children can speak English. However, in the global economy and given our place in the world, it is also important that we recognise, first, that many children in our country are bi-and trilingual and, secondly, that many children, young people and adults would benefit economically, socially and culturally from the learning of another language.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her statement that the Government's views will be clarified during the autumn. If I am correct from looking at the weather, that seems to be about now. Would she be so kind as to tell us when that clarification will come? Does she agree that the key to getting a proper catchment for secondary schools and higher education is an improvement in language teaching in primary schools?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

Yes, my Lords, we are at the beginning of autumn. I can tell the noble Lord that we intend to publish the languages strategy at about the end of November. I am currently in discussion with the Languages Steering Group, which has played an important role and contributed enormously to languages strategy, and with colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to plan the right sort of event, to which all noble Lords who have taken an interest will of course be invited.

I agree with the noble Lord that the issue of primary education is central. Noble Lords will be aware from previously published documents that working towards a primary entitlement is a plank of the Government's strategy.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that if, as she suggested earlier, the new languages strategy moves towards what I term a music grade-type of system for teaching and assessing languages, that that will not be, as is music in schools, an entirely optional extra—that it will be a clear part of the curriculum until the age of 16?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, there is no suggestion that we would abandon the GCSE or A-level. Noble Lords will recall that I have been considering the system—some noble Lords have been party to discussion with the Nuffield Foundation and others—to decide what we can do to provide recognition to help people who are learning a language. So our intention is to establish a primary entitlement and, as I said, to continue current provision for 11 to 14-year-olds—noble Lords will be aware that we have not published our conclusions for the 14 to 19 strategy.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, I rise to underline a previous question. I have now been six years in this House and have repeatedly asked the Minister and her predecessors why they cannot do anything about primary school teaching of languages. I have received platitudes and false hopes. In every other country of Europe, they manage to teach alternative languages from the age of eight. Why cannot the English state do so?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, 20 per cent of our schools currently teach an additional language. It is my aspiration and hope that under the languages strategy we will progressively increase that proportion. We have said that by 2012 every primary school child will be entitled to learn a foreign language. The reason for such timescales is to make them achievable—so that we can provide the necessary number of teachers to offer that entitlement effectively.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, English may have become a lingua franca—de facto, if not de jure—but is there not an a priori case for improving the teaching of foreign languages in this country?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, fortunately, my Latin is good enough to let me know the difference between de facto and de jure.

It is important to make sure that we have good language teaching. Noble Lords who have spoken to me in the past few months will know that we have been considering options that would allow us to make sure that we use the ability of the many citizens of this country who have good language skills and who could, perhaps, support language teaching in primary schools and the teaching of older children and adults. We want to develop the ability to provide good language teaching and training across the spectrum, using good teachers and ICT.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the Minister used the word "entitlement" with reference to children in primary school. If it is an entitlement—interesting language—there must be provision. There are nearly 20,000 primary schools. Given the dearth of foreign language teachers in secondary schools, where will such provision come from?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Baroness is, of course, right to consider the issue of entitlement. I use that word carefully.

The strategy is being rolled out with time to implement it effectively. First, we want to increase the number of primary school teachers who teach French coming through the teacher training system. We want to double the number next year, if we can. Secondly, we are aware that there are teachers in the primary system who have language skills but cannot teach languages because the subject is not offered at their school. Thirdly, we are considering ways of developing a training scheme on to which we can invite other adults. If I can use the musical analogy again, we want musicians to learn how to teach their subject and come into schools. The noble Baroness is right: we must ensure that we have the right number of teachers.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, res ipsa loquitur. We must move on.

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